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Deborah Lipstadt
Credit: Deborah Lipstadt

David Irving
Credit: Public Domain


William Pitch, student at Gray Academy of Jewish Education

Deborah Lipstadt will be delivering CISA's 2013 Shindleman Family Lecture on Monday, April 22, 2013 at 7:30 pm in the Provencher Ballroom at the Hotel Fort Garry. Admission is by donation and everyone is welcome. Dr. Ruth Ashrafi, Rhonda Spivak, and Dr. Catherine Chatterley have arranged for Professor Lipstadt to speak to students at Gray Academy during her visit to Winnipeg.

David Irving was once a respected historian specializing in the Second World War, with over thirty books to his credit, on topics as diverse as Convoy PQ-17 and Ernst Rommel, the Desert Fox. He had been one of the first to denounce Gerd Heidemann’s forged “Hitler Diaries”, back in the 1980s. So what if he had a somewhat checkered past, if he had been involved with the British Union of Fascists while in college, if he had made a point of shouting “Heil Hitler” at the wreckage of houses destroyed by the Blitz— Irving’s star was on the rise. Yes, it was known to some people that he had controversial views— he was an apologist for Adolf Hitler— but as long as these views never became public, David Irving would be just fine.


Then came Hitler’s War. Published in 1977, this was the book that caused what was a great controversy among historians of Germany and WWII. In it, Irving portrayed Hitler as a rational idealist who only wanted to make Germany powerful again and who was constantly impeded by scheming, traitorous, subordinates— a conclusion, funnily enough, that Hitler himself had espoused during the war. For the purposes of this article, we shall ignore Irving’s selective use of sources, close our eyes to his all-too-obvious bias and his tenuous conclusions, and concentrate on his thesis: that Hitler did not know of the gas chambers, and indeed was actually against the Holocaust— a controversial assertion if ever there was one.


This set off alarm bells in the scholarly community; alarm bells that were far overdue. Irving had made other shaky claims in the past, exaggerating the death toll of the Dresden bombings, and blaming Winston Churchill for the death of Polish leader Wladyslaw Sikorski, but this had finally crossed the line. Hitler’s War was widely criticized by historians, who cited Irving’s poor research and dubious historiography. After a few more titles, Irving departed from the legitimate historical community. Several years later, he became an “official” Holocaust denier, endorsing such luminaries as Ernst Zu¨ndel and Fred Leuchter. And then he dropped off the radar for several years— until 1993.


“[David] Irving is one of the most dangerous spokespersons for Holocaust denial. Familiar with historical evidence, he bends it until it conforms with his ideological leanings and political agenda. . . . He demands "absolute documentary proof" when it comes to proving the Germans guilty, but he relies on highly circumstantial evidence to condemn the Allies. This is an accurate description not only of Irving's tactics, but of those of deniers in general.” 


This is a quotation from Deborah Lipstadt’s 1993 book Denying the Holocaust. Upon hearing of the way she had written about him, Irving became incensed, on one occasion attempting to disrupt a lecture by Lipstadt at DeKalb College, in Atlanta. When she refused to engage with him, Irving declared that her refusal constituted “cowardice” and invalidated her charges. He then distributed free copies of his Göring biography to the attending students. When Lipstadt, after all this, refused to acknowledge him in any way, Irving flew home angry.


Three years later, he filed suit against Lipstadt and her publisher, Penguin Books. Far from simply taking issue with the numerous charges she leveled at him— all of which were proven to be to true, incidentally— Irving declared that he resented Lipstadt’s charge of “Holocaust denier” as he believed there was no Holocaust to deny.


In suing Lipstadt in an English court, Irving stacked the cards in his favor. Under American law, the plaintiff, or person filing suit, must prove that the libelous statements are both false and malicious. Under English law, the “defendant” or person being sued must prove the libelous statement is true. In this case, Lipstadt and Penguin had to prove three things beyond a showdown of doubt. They had to prove that Irving was a Holocaust denier who had associated with neo-Nazi groups, that he had falsified and twisted historical evidence in his books, and that he was discredited as an historian.


In order to prove these points, Penguin and Lipstadt engaged a group of expert historians to testify on their behalf, including Richard J. Evans, Professor of Modern History at Cambridge University and leading historian of Nazi Germany, Christopher Browning, the leading scholar of the Final Solution, Peter Longerich, a renowned German Holocaust historian, Robert Jan van Pelt, a Dutch architectural expert on Auschwitz, and Political Science Professor Hajo Funke of the Freie Universität Berlin who specializes in the study of neo-Nazism.


Sure that the suit would be ruled in his favor, Irving approached Penguin with the following audacious settlement offer: They would have to withdraw Denying the Holocaust from its UK publication, deny all Lipstadt’s conclusions, and make a £500 charitable donation in the name of Irving’s disabled daughter. Naturally, Penguin refused. And the most important libel trial of the twentieth century began.


Professor Richard Evans was the chief witness for the defense. Having spent over two years examining Irving’s work, armed with a massive 740-page report on German concentration and extermination camps, he was well-equipped to demolish Irving’s arguments, which collapsed like a house of cards in the face of hard documentary evidence. Furthermore, Evans had concluded, from his examination of Irving’s work, that Irving had indeed falsified evidence and used a shoddy historiographical process, going so far as to say: “if we mean by historian someone who is concerned to discover the truth about the past, and to give as accurate a representation of it as possible, then Irving is not a historian."


Also notable at the trial was the extreme personal antagonism between Evans and Irving, the two getting into a number of heated debates, particularly involving the interpretation of secret Nazi communiqués. Irving claimed that those referring to Jewish “emigration” and “resettlement” were meant literally, alluding variously to the Madagascar Plan, an aborted attempt to ship Europe’s Jews to the African island, as well as the Nazi lie that the Jews were to be “resettled in the East”.


When Irving began to taunt Evans about the absence of a “smoking gun” in the Nazi memoranda being examined, Evans retorted that Irving was deliberately interpreting the documents literally, ignoring the frequent use of euphemism that appears in any diplomatic communication. Evans further accused Irving of twisting history by only accepting the literal interpretation of the documents. Longerich later testified on the often misleading and euphemism-filled correspondence of Nazi officials, most of who wanted to mask their intentions as much as possible. Specifically, he focused on the phrase “resettlement in the East” as a euphemism for extermination, while Irving interpreted the term literally.


Irving’s arguments collapsed during cross-examination, with one witness after other demolishing his simplistic view of history and mercilessly exposing his personal views—an apologist for Hitler and neo-Nazism. In fact, at one point Browning compared Irving to “a dim student who didn’t listen. If he didn’t get the answer he wanted, he just repeated the question.”


On 11 April 2000, the 333-page ruling was received and read by Justice Gray. He stated, among other things, that sufficient evidence had been given to prove that the Holocaust had occurred, that Irving was a racist and a antisemite, and furthermore, that he was a bad historian. Shortly after his appeal was rejected, Irving left the UK in disgrace. He declared bankruptcy in 2002, was arrested for Holocaust denial in Austria four years later, and returned to London. Today, he remains a regular fixture on the Holocaust denial lecture circuit, even offering tours of death camps in 2010.


Professor Lipstadt is the leading world authority on the phenomenon of Holocaust Denial and is currently writing a new book called Holocaust Denial in the 21st Century, the subject of her lecture for CISA in April. 



William Pitch is a student at Gray Academy in Winnipeg and is CISA’s first student correspondent.


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